Interfaith groups notwithstanding, major religions of the world have a big problem with each other; it's called Hell. They don't bring it up at the meetings on religious tolerance, but the official Catholic policy is that Protestants, Muslims, and Jews go to hell. Protestants say that Catholics, Muslims and Jews go to hell. And Muslims say that Christians and Jews go to hell. Although on an individual level we can ignore this, theologically it is a wall that separates major world religions.
Many liberal-minded religionists are uncomfortable with this perspective, but that remains today the official dogma. This presents a difficulty in religions embracing one another as valid roads to the same destination. How can I walk arm-in-arm with someone who believes I am destined to pain and suffering for eternity, whether I am a decent moral person or not?
A man and woman who were dating came to me for counseling. She believed in Jesus, he was a traditional Jew. I asked her how she could consider marrying someone she thinks will burn in everlasting damnation. She laughed nervously, "Well, I haven't exactly worked that out yet."
From Jewish tradition, a different viewpoint emerges starting with the fact that there doesn't exist the concept of everlasting damnation and torture. The Almighty's justice is not served by punishing someone forever. Justice means the punishment fits the crime. Since we are finite and our sins are finite, then our punishment or atonement must be finite. To take it one step further, the very connection with wrongdoing is an act of connecting to that which is temporary, physical, devoid of Godliness. On the other hand, when you do a mitzvah, you become one with God who is eternal. Evil and bad by definition do not exist forever; therefore the atonement period for wrongdoing is a fixed period of time.
When you do a mitzvah, you become one with God who is eternal.
This temporary place of atonement is called Gehenom, and lasts for 11 or 12 months after someone passes away. (Which is the reason why Kaddish is said for that time period. The recitation of Kaddish atones for the soul, which mitigates the suffering of Gehenom.) Also, the suffering is not fire and brimstone, but rather something more directly related to the transgressions. There are those who suggest the nature of this punishment is actually the embarrassment of standing before God, aware of your transgressions. What could be more painful than that?
This embarrassment wipes away the barrier you created between you and God when you committed the transgression, and therefore is a great benefit. The atonement process is not so much a punishment as it is a spiritual dry-cleaning to rid you of any blemishes you may have on your soul before you enter the next phase, oneness with God.
Phase Two is known as the World of Souls and consists of all the souls worthy of a connection with God. This experience is still somewhat lacking until the end of days when the entire creation is corrected and rectified. Until then, righteous souls exist in a minor temporary oneness with God. Even though it's not full oneness with God, this phase is still awesomely pleasurable.
Getting back to judgment, Gehenom is not the same for everyone who goes there. Each individual experiences the atonement for his or her own specific transgressions. It's a uniquely personal event.
Heaven, known as the World to Come, is also a uniquely personal experience. You only have the closeness to God that you've created. Every mitzvah that you do is a piece of Godliness that's incorporated into your soul. In the next world you will realize what that closeness means for eternity. Each person will only experience the bond they have created.
Imagine a football game, there are the 50-yard-line seats, and different levels all the way up to the cheap nosebleed seats. If you've really blown it, you can end up in the hotdog stand forever. Therefore according to the Jews, it's not necessary for you to be Jewish to end up in Heaven; it all depends on your relationship with God.
This World and the Next
It's important to note that the World to Come and Gehenom are not mentioned specifically in the Five Books of Moses. It is spoken about only in the books of the Prophets, the Writings, and the Talmud. If it's such a crucial part of Jewish philosophy, why is it absent form the Torah?
Heaven is not discussed in the Torah, to emphasize that we do what's right because it's right.
The answer is that we are not meant to dwell on the reward and punishment that awaits us in the next world. You can be a righteous person your whole life, do every single commandment, stop hunger, bring about world peace, save the ozone and cure all disease. But if you did it all for your reward in the next world, you've lived a selfish life, which is the opposite of being one with God.
The Almighty needs nothing. He is infinite, and therefore every one of His acts is purely altruistic. Heaven is not discussed in the Torah, in order to emphasize the necessity to do what's right because it's right, and not for the reward, or to avoid punishment.
The Talmud relates many incidents of people who passed away making contact with the living and telling of conversations, debates, and other bits of information from the world beyond. Similarly, many people (myself included) claim to have seen a dead relative in a dream. Even with all these "eye witness" accounts of the world beyond, we still do not have a clear picture of what its like there, nor can we, until we shuffle off this "mortal coil."
One thing's for sure, returning our soul to its source is the ultimate pleasure a being can experience. Death, then, is not a tragedy from a kabbalistic view. It is a realization of our purpose, its coming home. The problem with death is that it cuts off any further spiritual growth. We delay death as long as possible, but once it happens, the soul is delighted to be reunited with God. For this reason some kabbalists have asked their students to celebrate at their demise. Lag B'Omer, the anniversary of the death of the greatest known kabbalist, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is celebrated with great fanfare (and great bonfires) by people all over the world.
Life is precious. We wish for long life, to do mitzvot, grow spiritually, and gain the greatest closeness we can to the Almighty in this world. But when the time comes for us to leave this world, there's no need to fear the next step. It's merely a step along the path to the ultimate pleasure of being one with God.